04 January 2008
In spite of having spent more than two months in Spain, we had never heard of the Alpujarras until we began searching for interesting road trips to take from Almerimar with Doug and Liz. Our Lonely Planet guidebook's description of orchards, gardens woodlands and hiking trails sounded delightful, with October recommended as the ideal time to visit. The location made it an easy drive from Almerimar-perfect for an overnight getaway.
"Las Alpujarras" is a picturesque region located in the heights of the Sierra Nevada, where white villages cling to the hillsides above deep ravines. Boabdil, the unfortunate last Emir of Granada, was granted the Alpujarras as a personal fiefdom by Isabel and Fernando after the surrender of Granada. Although Boabdil quickly decamped for Africa, many Muslim citizens remained and operated a productive silkworm farming industry until the 16th century. Intolerance, repression and forced conversions led to a revolt and eventually the Muslims were deported. The villages were resettled by Christians and the silkworm farms disappeared, but extensive terracing and irrigation systems established by the Muslims remained. Unlike other parts of southern Spain, this area is green and fertile, with a ready supply of available from the rivers running off the Sierra Nevada.
For our journey to the Aplujarras, we opted to take a secondary highway in search of the most dramatic scenery. Leaving the plastic greenhouses of El Ehido behind us, we climbed higher and higher past deep gorges and terraced olive groves. High in the hills we spotted a small wooden painted sign saying "Bodega", with an arrow pointing upward to a steep and narrow country road leading to an isolated vineyard with a spectacular view. To our surprise, the proprietor appeared and invited us inside. He spoke no English, but was happy to offer us tastes of his red, white and ros� table wines, labeled "Bodega Cortijo-Fuentezuelas". None of the wines were especially impressive, but the magic of the moment prompted us to buy several bottles of the red- no bargain at 8 euros a bottle, but worth every penny for the memories! As we left, the senor gave Liz some tomatoes from his garden and pointed the way to the nearby village where, we gathered, lunch was available.
In the village, the streets were so narrow that driving seemed a bad idea. We parked the car and stood gazing at the view. It was as though we had entered another world- perhaps one a little closer to Canada since suddenly the landscape was no longer arid. Colourful gardens were still in full flower despite the lateness of the season and deciduous trees were beginning to turn golden. The air was crisp, clean and cool. We stood at a tiny mirador where a huge plane tree overshadowed a small bench and admired the incredible view.
As we wandered up the steep street in search of a restaurant, we passed a tiny graveyard where the graves were decorated with flowers and photos of the deceased. (I could barely get a glimpse over the wall by standing on the tips of my toes, but Doug, who stands nearly a foot taller than I, had a perfect view.) In a small courtyard, a horse?mule loaded with panniers eyed us suspiciously.
At the crest of the hill overlooking the town, we found a small restaurant with a pleasant patio. It was impossible not to feel guilty eating our "plata del dia" as two lanky dogs sat beside the table staring at us hopefully with sad gazes. The first course of lentil stew was too good to share, but most of Doug's scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms were smuggled outside the restaurant in a paper napkin and shared with his new friends. As we walked back down the hill to the car, the dogs followed us. We passed another horse being led down the street, with a tiny dog perched on the saddle.
We decided to make Capileira our destination for the night. Continuing westward and higher still, we frantically snapped pictures out the car window- stopping was not an option in most places. When we found a mirador and got out to stretch our legs, the air was full of the scent of wild oregano.
We passed through Bubion and finally arrived at Capilleira (elevation 1436 meters). The Hotel Finca Los Llobos seemed an attractive choice- for 70 Euros a night (including breakfast) we had lovely large rooms with small balconies overlooking the mountains.
After checking into the hotel, we set out to explore the town. Capilleira is a picturesque place with steep streets, white flat-topped houses and breathtaking mountain views in all directions. Gardens were still showing some colour in spite of the encroachment of autumn. We visited some of the local arts and crafts stores, bought a few gifts and then stopped in a local bar where an impressive display of the area's famous dried hams (jamon serrano) hung from ceiling hooks. After some searching, we found a well-stocked supermercado and bought supplies to have a picnic. We ended the evening on our balcony, gazing out over an array of Mounty-hat chimney pots at the mountains and stars, sipping wine and eating dried ham and fresh bread with a selection of Spanish cheeses and olives.
The next morning we had a hearty breakfast, explored the fields behind our hotel and took some photos. The cool mountain air dissuaded us from taking a dip in the hotel's outdoor swimming pool, but the day would have been perfect for a long hike. After a short walk we were off again down the mountain to Orgiva, where we had heard there was an interesting market held on Thursday mornings.
The Alpujarras is a well-known "new-age hippy" enclave and the Orgiva market proved to be a fascinating spot for people-watching. In fact, many of the "hippies" seemed to be the old-age version, in varying degrees of affluence and cleanliness. Artisan stalls were sprinkled among flea-market style vendors, and the busiest stall at the market seemed to be the one selling artificial flowers- probably to decorate the home shrines and graves during the autumn season when fresh flowers are not at readily available. A pair of beautiful hand-carded woolen blankets proved to be our find of the day.
Liz and I left Doug and Rick at a bustling outdoor caf� near the market, where they happily sipped caf� con lech�s beside a large table of young and old hippies. (Here, the cent of oregano was replaced by the stronger scent of another "weed".) After an hour of unsuccessful shopping, Liz and I returned to collect the men and we shared a roasted chicken and greasy "frites" from a small shop on the main street.
By late afternoon, we had made our way back down the winding road to Motril and "homeward" to Almerimar. As we drove the last few miles through the less-than-idyllic scenery outside El Ehido , Liz said ""I feel like I've been to outer space and back." And that really seemed to sum things up perfectly!
15 October 2007
Some of the most interesting areas of Spain can't be visited by boat, so early Saturday morning (early=10 a.m. in Spain) we assembled our maps and guidebooks, packed up our rented Lancia and hit the road. Our first stop was Nijar, a small town southeast of Almeria known for hand-painted ceramics and cotton rugs. We dug out our map of the town, and discovered it was for Nerja, not Nijar- oops! No matter; we had been here before with Wally and Martha and even I couldn't get lost in a town this small. Two hours later, we had more ceramica than we could ever hope to carry back to Halifax, so we headed for Cabo de Gata. This is a lovely coastal area east of Almeria, with gorgeous beaches, stunning views and terrifying switchbacks. Our map clearly showed that we could drive westward around the cape from San Jos�- but after traveling for miles along a narrow dirt road beside beautiful beaches and high sand dunes, we eventually hit a dead end. We had to backtrack to see the lighthouse, but our off-road adventure was worthwhile since it gave us a glimpse of several beautiful anchorages that we hope to visit next year.
On our way to Granada we drove through rolling hills and desert-like terrain. This area looks exactly like the desert hills in the Clint Eastwood dusters-because these are, in fact, the very same hills. Several of the "spaghetti westerns" were filmed in this area, and a number of intact movie sets were left behind. So we weren't surprised when we spied a full movie set in a valley beside the highway. We also passed several clusters of modern-day cave houses. Fascinating to see, but I don't think I would want to live in one. On the other hand, many people find it odd that we choose to live on a 43-foot boat.
I was happy to have Nancy in the navigator's seat as we made our way to the Granada tourismo through the maze of one-way streets. Since we hadn't pre-booked a hotel, we got a bit nervous when the first few places on the tourismo's list were full. After six or seven phone calls we found a hotel that had two rooms available, and they were willing to let us have them if we stayed for two nights. Luckily, the rooms were very clean and comfortable. Now all that remained was to pick up the "Bono Touristico" passes that we had purchased on the internet.
When we visited Granada with Wally and Martha in 1998, we had been unable to see the Palacio Nazaries in the Alhambra because the daily quota of tickets had already been sold. The "Bono Touristico" passes would give us a reserved time slot to see the Alhambra, access to the "hop on/hop off" tourist bus and tickets for numerous historic sites. The confirmation email had been completely in Spanish and we had forgotten to print a copy before we left the boat, but we were pretty sure that we were supposed to pick up the passes at the Capilla Real. Since our pre-booked time to see the Alhambra was 1 p.m. the next day (Sunday), we needed to get those passes "pronto". Naturally, we arrived at the Capilla Real just seconds after closing time- and they wouldn't be reopening until 11 a.m. on Sunday. I was beginning to think that we were destined to never see the palace, but there was no point in fretting about it.
We decided to find a bar and see for ourselves whether the rumours of the wonderful tapas in Granada were true. Granada is one of the few cities in Spain where the bars still serve complementary tapas with each drink. We squeezed ourselves into a corner of a bustling little establishment, where our glasses of wine were accompanied by thin slices of dried ham and delicious blood pudding. (I already know what you're thinking- "delicious blood pudding" is an oxymoron, but it really was good.) We stayed for dinner and really enjoyed our meal, especially the "habas"- round green beans served with chunks of Iberico ham.
The next day, we were up at the crack of dawn. (Since the sun isn't rising until around 8.30 a.m. here, that isn't as hard as you might think). On the way to pick up our touring passes, we wandered through the Alcaiceria (market area) -lots of Spanish fans, T shirts and Moroccan merchandise. With our passes finally in hand, we dashed to the bus stop and headed for the Alhambra.
Granada was the last surviving emirate in Andalucia, and remained under Moorish control until late in the 15th century. Isabella and Ferdinand moved in to the Alhambra at the beginning of 1492-a big year for Spain, it seems. In one famous quote, the emir's mother scolds him for his incompetence, saying "cry like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man!" It must have been heartbreaking for the emir to lose his incredible palace to such a disagreeable couple.
Some claim that the Alhambra is the world's most impressive Islamic structure.
It is a magical place, and the Palacio Nazaries is unquestionably the most beautiful building I have ever seen. The tilework, intricate woodwork, stone carvings, fountains and arches were stunning. The gardens are delightful, and the extensive use of water makes this a restful and soothing place to wander. Still, some people find it difficult to rest in a garden, and when I saw Nancy pulling a weed I was convinced she would get us thrown out.
After three hours at the Alhambra, we returned to a sunny caf� near the cathedral for a late lunch. As we enjoyed our Mediterranean salads and croquetas, we wondered why there are so many houseflies in Spain-but at least now we understand the practical advantages of the painted fans we see everywhere.
Next, we moved on to the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), where the tombs of Isabella and Ferdinand are housed. Their brilliant decision to fund Christopher Columbus' expedition obviously paid off, and they were well able to afford the magnificent mausoleum they commissioned for themselves. But the chapel contains some reminders of the darker side to their story, including artwork depicting the forced mass baptisms of Granada's Muslims. Isabella and Ferdinand initiated the Spanish Inquisition, during which Jews were forced to convert or face expulsion and thousands of citizens were tortured and killed. I'm sure they were an impressive pair, but Nancy and I decided that they must have missed the "love one another" lesson in Sunday School.
The Granada cathedral, adjacent to the Capilla Real, is enormous and full of light. By now we can easily recognize the faces of Isabella and Ferdinand, once again portrayed at prayer. Some beautiful works of art by Cano were displayed behind the altar, but we were most impressed by a float with the Virgin Mary that had obviously been prepared for a procession. The float had been decorated with hundreds of white roses and dozens of tall pillar candles. An elderly gentleman dressed in a suit was standing guard to ensure that no one touched the float. Fortuitously, the procession was just about to begin when we walked past the cathedral later that evening. First came a marching band, then dozens of men and women (dressed in full Spanish elegance) carrying scepters, banners and candles, then another band, and finally the Virgin Mary float appeared in the doorway. The float was carried by a dozen or more young men who managed to maneuver expertly through the crowd in spite of the heavy draperies that would surely have prevented them from seeing anything. The young altar boys swinging large incense balls seemed to be having a lot more fun.
After the procession, we settled into a little caf� to watch some flamenco. Even though the caf� was called "Caf� au lait" and the proprietors were obviously French, we are convinced it was an authentic performance. The caf� was perhaps a bit too small- Rick says that the next time he sees flamenco he would prefer not to be close enough to see the stubble under the senorita's arms.
Can you believe that this all happened in one day? But we weren't quite finished yet. It was our last night together before Nancy left, and we decided to stop in for a final glass of vino tinto at a neighborhood bar near the hotel. Our waiter had great fun at our expense, correcting our atrocious Spanish grammar and pronunciation. When he dropped a huge plate of roasted chicken and fried potatoes in front of us (no charge) how could we refuse?
The next morning, we completed our mini-tour of Grenada with a long walk through the Albayzin area. This is the old Muslim quarter of the city, with steep cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, tiny houses, some larger houses with beautiful courtyards, and a great view of the Alhambra. Nuns in traditional full habits were at prayer in two of the tiny churches we visited. (No mosques left in this area though- see note on Inquisition above.) By then it was almost time for Nancy to catch her bus to Seville, so we dropped her off at the terminal at around 3 o'clock and drove away feeling very sad to see her go, and very worried about how she would cope carrying that big duffel bag, which by now was loaded down with everything from wine to chorizo to ceramica.
Our route back to Almerimar took us right through the Sierra Nevada- a spectacular drive through high mountains, deep gorges and small villages that seemed to cling to the cliffs. We hadn't remembered that it was Thanksgiving day, so no turkey for us- we had leftover paella and pasta for supper! Doug and Liz arrived on Thursday afternoon, and we'll write more about our adventures with them on the next post!
Hoping you all had a Happy Thanksgiving, and wishing you all a belated happy Columbus Day!
All the best from Aisling 1.
The Mediterranean Meander Begins
05 October 2007 | Gibraltar to Almerimar
Bonnie with a few notes from Rick
Although Gibraltar is just a short walk from Spain, it seemed a world away. After four months of traveling through Portugal and Spain, it actually felt peculiar to arrive in a town that is thoroughly English. The internet caf� was airing an episode of "Friends" on the TV, and our non-alcoholic beer was served warm, with ice. Apparently the British prefer real beer, so we decided to conform.
Nancy's flight landed in Seville at 2:30 in the afternoon, but from there she still faced a journey involving two bus rides, a walk across the border, and a taxi to the marina. By 8:30 p.m. I was getting anxious and decided to walk along the dock to search for her. Within a minute I spotted her, dragging an over-size duffel bag and staring around looking bemused and wide-eyed. I went dashing up the dock shouting her name and we had a noisy reunion that lasted until we realized we were standing in the middle of a dock-side restaurant and providing a great source of amusement for the clientele. Nancy's eyes got even wider when she saw our method of getting on and off the boat but we managed to hoist the duffle bag over the anchor without incident. We relaxed in the cockpit for a while trying out Rick's new sangria recipe, then went back up the dock for an Indian meal. Then we stayed up until 1 a.m., talking non-stop.
The next morning Nancy and I slept late, while Rick went trudging across town in the heat to get a "practique", the legal document that proves Aisling was out of the EU for VAT purposes. He was dripping in sweat but all smiles when he returned with the practique in hand. Eventually, we wandered over to Main Street to explore.
It seems that one duty-free port is much like another and if it hadn't been for the Bobbies, Elizabeth R mailboxes and British pubs on the corners, we might have thought we were in Philipsburg. After investigating a few camera shops and making a raid on Marks and Spencer's food section, we found a tiny tapas restaurant on a side street and tried some sardines in garlic oil, delicious little fish cakes and a little fish stew with herbs and saffron. Late in the afternoon we heard a military band strike up, and rushed down to the square just in time to see the "Ceremony of the Keys", commemorating the Great Siege of Gibraltar. Various onlookers informed us that this ceremony takes place every two months/twice a year/once a year- we're still not sure. In any case it was very impressive, very military and very British. There were private seats for all the dignitaries and we noticed, at the end that the Governor was driven off with much ceremony, in a chauffered Jaguar with 4 police escorts wearing suits and ties, on motorcycles. The next dignitary was escorted with 2 police motorcyclists in a smaller Rover and the Archbishop left next in a Hyundai, alone. ?
The next day, we set off for a tour of "The Rock". Our fellow passengers in the eight-seat minibus were all from the cruise ship "Princess"-an Israeli family currently living in South Africa (who were even more appalled by the Gibraltar prices than we were) and an older woman from Moscow who chatted to us cheerfully throughout the tour in spite of the fact that we could only understand about half of what she was saying. (This provided considerable insight into what the Spanish are experiencing when we try to ask them directions.) Our cab driver and "tour guide" threw out tidbits of information on Gibraltar's history along the way. (Did you know that the town of "La Linea" is named because this was "the line" the cannon balls could reach during the battles between the Spanish and British for control of Gibraltar?) We toured the St. Michael's caves, the Great Siege tunnels and the Moorish castle- and of course visited the macaques. Nancy posed with an ape on her shoulder; Rick and I declined. But some guys just won't take no for an answer and one decided to jump onto Rick's back anyway- yikes! Later, we took a tour of a section of the 70km of tunnels that were used by the Allies during World War II. Our tour guide "Smudge" (Smith) was full of fascinating information. Five thousand men and three hundred women lived and worked in these tunnels. The majority of the men were underground six days a week- on the seventh day they had a day off when they could go out onto the base, get some sunshine, play football and drink a few beers. Not much socializing with civilians though- there were few remaining on the Rock during that period, because most had been evacuated-probably to places far less safe than Gibraltar, which was not attacked during WWII.
Nancy was itching to get to Spain, and we were itching to get into the Med, so we decided to get going. First, we filled our tanks with fuel- diesel is only 57 pence ($1.14) per liter in Gibraltar compared to 1.01 Euros (about $1.50) in Spain. Then it was around the corner and into the Med- an exciting moment in our journey! The view of the Rock is much more spectacular from the Med side- we took photo after photo- Nancy with the Rock in the background, Rick and Bonnie with the Rock in the background, Rick and Nancy with the Rock in the background...
We had hoped to go to Estapona, but the marina didn't have room for us and we couldn't anchor because we needed to clear back into Spain. Our only choice was Sotogrande-an ultra-expensive marina in a swish resort that certainly did not satisfy Nancy's longing to get to Spain. Lots of restaurants on shore- but not a Spanish one in sight. We had dinner in an Italian restaurant- very good actually- and our Hungarian waiter was very charming. We would classify the Sotogrande stop as "unremarkable".
The next morning we were shocked to hear that our berth cost 70 Euros a night, so we cancelled our plans for a swim and decided to move on. We were able to anchor just off the beach in Estapona, with a view of Gibraltar off our port side and a view of the mountains on the bow. This is an exposed anchorage from the south and east but there is good holding in 15' in sand just off the beach, very near the center of town. The weather was calm and hot for the two days we were there. We put out a stern anchor to align ourselves with the incoming swell, which made the boat very comfortable. Estapona has been highly developed in the unfortunate Costa del Sol style, but the town has retained much of its original character, and there are very few tourists in September. The long sand beach was almost deserted, and the water was 23 degrees, so we finally had our swim in the Med.
Our next stop was Caleta Velez. The weather was unsettled, with a frontal passage expected that night, so we were relieved to get the last berth at the marina. It cost 23.40 Euros for the 19m berth. Unfortunately we were not the only occupants- several dozen seagulls were already in residence and the dock was a mess, coated white with guano. This is a working fishing harbour with lots of boats coming and going. It is quite a walk into town so we decided to eat on the boat and get to bed early in order to leave at 7:00am for Almerimar. We were still a bit apprehensive about Almerimar retaining a winter berth for us as there are no prior reservations permitted. It's first come first served. This after many emails to them explaining our concerns and need of a confirmation. Their last email said don't worry they will have a berth for us- this is the Spanish way, I guess.
The passage was 60 miles with no wind for the first few hours and a heavy swell that had been generated by the frontal passage the night before. The sea was littered with debris and was almost like an obstacle course in parts. This was the result of heavy rains in the mountains that had caused severe flooding in much of Andaluc�a. We arrived in Almerimar in Force 5-6 winds. This is a very shallow entrance with much silting and the west winds created a strong current at the mouth and inside the marina. Good news though-they did have a place for us for the winter and also a berth in the water for 2 weeks for 9.40 euros a night, as we explore Almerimar, Almeria and Granada with Nancy and await the arrival of Doug and Liz.
We Smell the Med
26 September 2007 | Gibraltar
Thirty two degrees in the shade is the reading on our thermometer here in Gibraltar. It's HOT!!! We find ourselves seeking the shady side of the street when walking, even in early morning. We lie low during the main heat of the day, when it is even hotter.
It has been quite a week, especially from a historical perspective. We have stayed south of Huelva on the same river Columbus sailed down in his caravelles to find the new world. Then on to Rota in Cadiz Harbour, which has been occupied by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, the British and is now part of Spain. Rota is a beautiful old town with narrow alleys, Moorish and Iberian architecture and a long sandy beach that stretches for four kilometers. The marina was very close to the beach and the town, and we explored quite a bit by foot. One day, we saw some tents being set up in the square and decided to wander back in the evening to check it out. It was the 8th "Feria de la Tapa"- how perfect is that? For three days, restaurants from the area served their tapas specialties for 1.80 euro a plate (beer and wine, one euro a glass). It was yummy. As we are constantly starved for the company of English speakers, when we heard some English being spoken we gravitated to a crowd of about six guys. It turns out they all work for NASA and were in Rota to train ground crew at the base in case the space shuttle was forced to make an emergency landing. Most were physicians, although one did training on how to get in and out of space suits. He claimed his title was "Insertion Specialist"- he must have had a great business card! He also claimed to be the grandson of the actress who played June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver. Yes, this was a night for tall tales, and we had a great time talking and discussing the world while munching down tapas and drinking beer. Rota is a place you could hang out in for a year or two, we think. But the clock said we had to get moving to Gibraltar.
From Rota, we sailed for Barbate. This route took us around Cape Trafalgar, where Napoleon's ambitions to conquer Britain were foiled by Lord Nelson. Nelson's fleet chased the French fleet across to the Caribbean and back to Cadiz, where Nelson finally fought the combined French and Spanish fleets. Nelson's famous flag signal was "England expects every man to do his duty." Although Nelson was killed n the battle, the British gave the French and Spanish a resounding defeat and Britain controlled the seas. This battle shaped history for the next 100 years. It was remarkable to sail through that area. It must have been very challenging for both fleets as there are lots of shallow spots nearby and any time you pass a cape there are unpredictable winds. I wonder if they had to deal with all those fish nets and traps? ?
Barbate was just a quick overnighter where we made our plans to sail around Tarifa and into the Strait of Gibraltar. It can be a tricky passage because of the currents and the Levanter. Well, we had all of it against us, winds from the east up to 25 knots and in spite of our careful study the tide was against us as well, except for the last hour. We were determined to get to Gibraltar so we powered through it for seven hours. The Strait, as you can imagine is very busy and we generally had 12 or more vessels on the AIS at a time. Fortunately there is a well controlled traffic zone and we were able to easily stay clear of the traffic. In spite of the banging and crashing going to windward it was great scenery. There were hundreds of power-generating windmills around Tarifa, high mountains on the Spanish side and the hazy mountains of Morocco beckoned in the south.
As we pulled into Gibraltar Harbour, it was packed with vessels of every description, many at anchor but others were on the move The high speed Cat ferry from Cueta barreled by us within 500 meters and warships were weaving through the mess. In the middle was little old us trying to hold on in all the wash. In the roll, it took us a while to hang the eight bumpers and prepare the lines for our first Med moor at Queensway Quay. It was hard to even see the entrance as there are moles running every which way and the entrance is 90 degrees to the shore but we found it and the Med moor was surprisingly easy in the end. It helps to have someone ashore to help grab the lines. Getting off the boat was another story. The eight-foot plank we had carried on deck all the way from Halifax would not work, so in the end we lowered our Spade anchor about two feet off the bow and were able to use it as a step to climb on and off the boat. It's not perfect but it works.
We have spent the usual day getting the boat cleaned and ready for Nancy's arrival tonight- she will be onboard for the exciting moment when we go around the corner into the Med.
There is definitely a difficult side to cruising so far away from home. Yesterday we had a call from Katherine, telling us that she has been diagnosed with pneumonia. Needless to say, we are very worried. Thankfully, Bonnie's mother has come to the rescue yet again and is flying to Toronto today to make sure she is looked after.
The Picture is from our Chart plotter of all the AIS targets in Gibraltar Harbour. The little red dot on the West side of Gibraltar is Aisling in the Marina.
We will fill you in on our Gibraltar travels later. All the best from Aisling I.